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Family Dinner

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When Bishop told her she could stay with them (Of course, my child; this is a home for the lost and forsaken, and she saw the way Heine rolled his eyes), Naoto wasn't sure what to expect. Shelter, yes, a safe place to sleep (well, as safe as it got, anyway), but little more than that. Between little Nill with her wide-eyed silence and Heine with his stray-dog snarl, it seemed like there wouldn't be much camaraderie to be found (and that was fine; Naoto wouldn't know what to do with it anyway). Badou might be the exception, but as far as she could tell he didn't actually live here, just came by when he needed to pick up his...partner for one dangerous job or another.

But an hour or so after Badou left, he came back, ambling in the door with a paper sack full of groceries. "Ran into the old pervert while I was out," he said instead of hello. "Said he had some things to take care of and he'd be home late." Then he smiled at Nill. "So, kiddo. You wanna come help with family dinner?"

"Family dinner?" Naoto asked, before she could quite remind herself that she didn't mean to get involved.

"Well, sure," Badou said, pulling a lopsided grimace. "Somebody's gotta make sure she gets a few normal things growing up, okay? Not like the lolicon priest or this crazy bastard," jerking a thumb at Heine, "are going to take up the slack."

Heine snorted. "I'm sure you'll make somebody a great wife someday."

Badou opened his mouth, probably to snark back, but Nill put her hands on her hips and stomped her foot once to get their attention, and her frown seemed to stop him in his tracks. "Haha, right, sorry, kiddo," he said instead. "No fighting in the house. Come on, let's go get dinner on."

Nill nodded and went with him, toward the living quarters tacked onto the back of the church; Heine pushed himself up off the pew he'd been sprawled on and followed. Naoto told herself she wasn't curious: she didn't want to get involved, didn't want to be distracted from her revenge or give herself the liability of having people she cared about. It would only do her harm.

After a minute she followed anyway.

The kitchen was small for four people—not much counter space, and a rickety little table taking up most of the floor. Badou had two pots on the stove, and Nill was standing next to him on a little step-stool so she could reach the counter herself. The bowl on the counter in front of them had a chunk of ground meat in it. "Okay," Badou was saying as Naoto leaned in the doorway to watch, "you wanna chop up the onion?"

"Hey," Heine said, folding his arms across his chest and glaring. "That's dangerous."

Badou sighed, rolling his eyes. "Come on, she's a smart kid, she knows how to be careful."

"I know," Heine retorted, "I just—"

Nill turned around to look at him, her eyes wide and her expression serious, tiny vestigial wings trembling.

Heine sighed loudly. "Fine, I'm sorry," he said, throwing up his hands. "I just don't want you to hurt yourself, okay?"

Nill nodded. Badou picked up the cutting board and knife. "Tell you what," he said, "why don't you do that at the table where your dad can keep an eye on you?"

That made both of them protest—Heine with a wordless yelp, Nill with pink cheeks and flailing—and Naoto couldn't help a moment of laughter before she managed to stifle it. Heine startled like he hadn't realized she was there, and then tried to give her an intimidating glare. "Nobody asked you," he snapped, hunching his shoulders defensively.

Naoto hid her smile behind her hand. "I'm not laughing at you," she promised. "It's sweet, that's all." And it was, nothing like she would have expected out of Heine given the way he treated everyone else. He supervised carefully—it almost seemed fair to say nervously—while Nill chopped the onion into tiny pieces, and then didn't quite hover as Badou showed her how to mix the meat and onion with bread crumbs and spices to make meatballs. She suspected that Badou had been at least partly joking when he called it that, or at least making a joke of it, which wasn't quite the same. But...was this what it would have been like? Naoto's own memories didn't reach that far back, but she thought so. Sitting at the table together, both teasing and taking care of each other. Being comfortable in each other's company.

When the food was ready, it was Nill who held out a plate to her and Badou who said, "Come on, sit down already, it makes Heine nervous when people lurk in doorways like that."

"Thank you," Naoto said to Nill, and Heine took a half-hearted swipe at Badou as he got up to serve himself, and somehow all of it felt welcoming. The meatballs were lopsided and unevenly sized, and the sauce had come straight out of a jar, but it was still delicious—and when Naoto said so, Nill beamed and clapped her hands. Naoto's ribs felt too tight, something warm and longing trapped behind them. She swallowed hard; this wasn't what she was looking for.

When it got late enough that Nill was having trouble stifling her yawns, it was Heine, not Badou, who carried her off to bed. Naoto watched them go, surprised again by his tenderness. His spiky exterior was—well, it was certainly part of the truth about him, still. But it looked as though there was much more to him than he liked to admit.

"Setting yourself up for trouble," Badou mumbled around the cigarette he was lighting. "I know what it looks like, especially at home like this, but he ain't looking for anyone to play house with."

"I know," Naoto said. She pressed her hand to the spot where her scars crossed and shook her head. "I'm not, either. I can't."

Badou nodded, blowing smoke in a thin stream. "Cause you're carrying around that mission thing too, huh."

Naoto looked away. "My revenge," she agreed. "I can't afford the distraction. The liability." She frowned. "I wouldn't have thought Heine would be willing to take that risk either."

"It's kind of a long story," Badou hedged.

Heine's boots thumped on the stairs as he came back down from Nill's room. "No, it isn't," he said as he ducked through the doorway. "She was in trouble. I happened to be hired to deal with the guys who were fucking with her." He shrugged. "Couldn't just abandon her again."

Badou snorted. "Yeah, okay, it's not a long story if you leave most of it out."

"Nobody needs the details," Heine answered. Prickly again, now that Nill wasn't around to calm him; Naoto felt like she could practically see his hackles bristling.

"I wasn't asking," she told him, maybe a little too shortly, but that seemed to make a little of the fight ease out of his stance again. "It's good she has people. That's all."

Heine nodded: he'd accept that much. "I guess you're one of them now," he said. "So...thanks."

They watched each other warily for a minute, until Badou made a big production of stretching and yawning. "Much as I'd hate to miss the dramatic outcome of the staring contest, it's been a long day and I could use some rest."

Heine looked over at him. "Are you trying to get an invitation to stay over?"

"It's a long way back to my apartment," Badou said mournfully, "and my landlady still hasn't turned on the heat for the building."

"Tch. Finish your smoke first," Heine said. "I don't want you getting ashes in the sheets again."

"It was only the once," Badou muttered, but he took a long drag like he was trying to kill the cigarette in a hurry.

Heine turned to Naoto again. "The spare mattress is in Nill's room," he told her. "I'll show you. Don't wake her up."

"I won't," Naoto agreed.

She followed Heine up a narrow set of stairs to the little cluster of rooms above the kitchen: Nill's on one side, Heine's on the other, and one in the middle with a closed door that must belong to Bishop. She nodded goodnight rather than speaking, and slipped into Nill's room, letting her eyes adjust to the dark. She could hear the stairs creak as Badou came up after them, and the too-quiet-to-make-out murmur of his and Heine's voices in the other room. Her heart was aching again.

This was dangerous—letting herself be moved, letting her guard down. Caring for anyone was a weakness; hadn't she learned that lesson already? And yet—here they were, this motley little group of stray dogs, snapping and snarling and looking after each other all the same. Naoto crossed the room carefully, barely able to make out the pale shape of the mattress on the floor. She laid her sword down on the floor in easy reach and unzipped her boots; Nill rolled over in bed, the sheets rustling, and sighed sleepily.

She couldn't afford to get attached, Naoto told herself one more time. And yet...they'd let her stay, invited her in to share their makeshift family dinner. They all had reasons to be wary, but they still made room for each other, and now for her, too. She kept her hand on her sword for reassurance, but it was the thought of being welcome that made her smile as she closed her eyes.